Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?
I am a 1st year PhD student based at the University of Birmingham, UK. My research is in the field of cancer immunology, where I am investigating how we could employ and exploit the biology of human gamma delta T cells (a type of immune cell) for development of cancer immunotherapy. In other words, I am interested in enhancing the ability of these immune cells to sense and kill different tumours, which should hopefully lead to better therapies for cancer patients in the future.
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
It’s hard to say what a typical day or week involves as each day can be very different, depending on what experiments need doing in the lab and if I have meetings, presentations or seminars to attend. My project is very lab based so I do spend the majority of my time in the lab doing experiments. However, I also have to attend lab meetings and one-to-one meetings with my supervisor every week to make sure I am on the right track with my PhD, and to see what else is happening in the lab and in our research field as this helps me drive my project forward. In addition, we have various seminars and journal clubs taking place during the week in our department and I like attending those to expand my knowledge of other areas in immunology (again, this helps with my own research as I can get ideas and learn from other scientists). In terms of the hours, it varies a lot depending on how much work I have to do, and this work I plan myself. There are days where I come in at 9-10am and finish all the lab work at 1-3pm, so I tend to spend the rest of the day reading and writing up what I’ve done and what I plan to do next, but equally there are days where I come in at 8-9am and don’t finish until 7-8pm due to the amount and length of some experiments.
What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?
Flexibility! By this I mean that 1) I get to plan my days and weeks as I want as it’s MY research project (I do get advice and direction from my supervisor and my team, of course, but the experimental planning in terms of when and how I want to do it is up to me in the end); and 2) I get opportunities to do other things with the university other than my PhD, such as be an interviewer for medicine programme, give talks at career and other student events about my scientific journey, and I am also involved in organising an online immunology course, as well as science communication via my blog on Instagram (called Research Diaries, @research.diaries) and with the university’s social media channels. I love having no set working hours so I can plan my work and life as I prefer.
What’s been the most challenging part of it?
I think the most challenging thing about any scientific PhD really is learning to deal with failure, such as when your experiments don’t work as you expect/plan, or when your paper gets rejected. It can get to you when things don’t work several times in a row. I knew in advance that not everything is going to work out as planned in all experiments, so it did not come as a surprise when it happened. However, it does eventually hit you after several unsuccessful attempts. In these situations, it’s important to talk to people about the problems, especially to your supervisor and the team who are there to support you.
Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I think I’ll probably be doing a postdoc abroad (most likely in the USA, Canada or Australia). I am interested in having a career in academia (i.e. being a university lecturer and having my own research group) as I love talking to students and sharing my knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for science!
What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Make sure you pick something you are genuinely interested in, otherwise it will be very long and tough 3-4 years of your life! PhD is a commitment and it can be a bumpy road, so it is vital that you apply for something you truly love. If you don’t find a PhD of your liking straightaway, don’t worry! It may help to wait and work in the meantime as a laboratory assistant, or do a research Masters degree to get some lab experience and to find out if you really enjoy working in a particular field for a long time (I did both, a research Masters, and worked as a lab assistant/tech for 7 months before starting my PhD). Finally, if you realise that you have a specific subject interest and a particular group you wish to do a PhD in, contact the supervisor directly and talk to others about that group to find out more about them (this was how I got to do my PhD, by contacting a supervisor in a field I am passionate about, rather than applying for different programmes).
What makes your university a good place to study?
University of Birmingham has excellent research facilities and opportunities as we have a large variety of research groups and great access to different hospitals, especially the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, one of the largest single-site NHS hospitals in the UK. This hospital has the largest solid organ transplant programme in Europe and is a national specialist centre for cancer studies, as well as liver, lung and heart transplantations. Also, Birmingham is a great city to live and work in.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love art (both going to museums/galleries, and doing drawings myself), and I’ve been a karate girl for 12 years now (black belt for 7 of those). I also love walking, and travelling when I have the opportunity.
Want to know more about Maria?
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